WASHINGTON — Rep. Pat Meehan's sudden fall last week began with a revelation that he used taxpayer money to quietly settle a sexual-harassment claim brought by an aide — but it was his stunning public response that accelerated his drive off the political cliff.
Meehan's decision to do wrenching interviews with nine news outlets Tuesday bucked the advice of congressional and campaign aides who argued against it, according to two people with direct knowledge of his planning and three others briefed on the situation.
Usually cautious in his public comments and often clumsy in his syntax, the Delaware County Republican also declined offers to help prepare for the high-pressure interviews, according to one of the sources. Two said that even some of his closest advisers were surprised by what he revealed.
By the end of it, Meehan's own words — especially his use of the phrase soul mate to describe the younger aide who had accused him of harassment — turned the story from another Washington scandal into a viral moment ridiculed on cable news and late-night talk shows.
Many Republicans believed Meehan's political career was doomed no matter what in an election year when sexual harassment has dominated the public discourse.
But his public explanation sped up the process.
"It's a difference of dying from an incurable disease, and committing hari-kari," said Dan Fee, a Democratic media consultant based in Philadelphia.
By the end of the week, Republicans throughout the Philadelphia region were shaking their heads at how a guarded former prosecutor had allowed alleged harassment, a secret legal settlement, and his own statements to implode his congressional career.
One person close to the situation said Meehan may have been influenced by his time as a federal prosecutor, when he learned the power of public perception and how damaging it could be for people accused of wrongdoing to remain silent as news reports mounted. Old political friends advised him to get ahead of the story, the source said.
Meehan, conscious of how the report might affect his straight-arrow public image after a long career as a Delaware County district attorney and U.S. attorney in Philadelphia, wanted to tell his side of the story, argue that he had not crossed any lines, and particularly make clear he had remained loyal to his wife. He also said he felt an obligation to answer questions as a public official.
In a series of interviews Meehan said he did not act inappropriately, but described his affection for his former aide, saying it grew from their close working relationship, and called her his "soul mate."
"It was sort of a confessional," said one person involved in the response. "He knew what he wanted to say and he said it."
Most people interviewed for this story would only speak about the congressman's internal deliberations on the condition they not be named.
One who did talk on the record, Delaware County GOP Chairman Andy Reilly, said he first learned of the New York Times report about the harassment accusation and settlement when the story was posted online Jan. 20, though Meehan knew it was coming.
Reilly heard from Meehan's campaign staff that the subsequent interviews were "Pat's decision." As of Friday, he still had not spoken to Meehan about the allegations.
"People were waiting to see how Pat would react and at some point he would have had to come and address the leadership of the county Republican parties," Reilly said. "But we never got to that point."
Instead, the situation unraveled quickly.
The Times reported that Meehan, 62, had acted hostile and expressed romantic desires to an aide decades younger than him after she began a serious relationship with someone else.
An initial statement from his office denied any harassment.
But he didn't leave it there. Meehan had to be talked out of doing a full news conference — which advisers feared would turn into a media frenzy — but insisted on a series of one-on-one interviews. He spoke to the Inquirer alone for 40 minutes Tuesday, answering nearly every question and elaborating more about his feelings toward his aide than he usually did on policy.
His congressional spokesman, John Elizandro, who wrote the initial response to the Times story, was not involved. Instead, Meehan turned to a politically connected public relations firm, Bellevue Communications, to set up the interviews — though by all accounts the congressman had already decided his tactics and message.
It wasn't clear from interviews Friday what alternative strategies Meehan's aides might have offered. He would have eventually faced reporters, whether at public appearances or on Capitol Hill.
As it was, Meehan on Tuesday said he was running for reelection. But two days later, as the damage settled in, he announced his decision not to run for a fifth term.
It was a swift ending that may reshape both parties' calculations as they battle for control of the House this fall. Meehan's swing district, the Seventh, also may be reconfigured in Democrats' favor after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ordered new maps for the state's 18 congressional districts.
It now represents a major opportunity for Democrats — who began the year with serious doubts about whether they could unseat Meehan, armed with a $2.5 million campaign fund, labor backing, and a moderate image that fit his battleground district.
Meehan did not respond to a message seeking a comment on this story. But he tried to explain his words and actions again in his letter Thursday announcing that he would drop his reelection bid.
"To me a soul-mate means a uniquely close person who is joined with you on a daily basis, in which you both share the routine successes and strains of a work day," he wrote. He concluded, "I acted, at all times, within the appropriate boundaries of the close relationship I shared with the former employee."
An attorney for the former aide has described the accusations against Meehan as "well-grounded allegations" of "a serious sexual harassment claim."
A House Ethics Committee is investigating. Its conclusions could grant Meehan belated vindication or leave a further stain on his tenure.